The Other Children in the DeSantis Culture War
ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s midday on Saturday in Orlando’s Greenwood Cemetery, and just up an incline from an algae-covered pond a group of students encircle a grave. Many are holding a book — some clutching it to their chests the way a preacher holds a Bible.
That book, “A History of Florida Through Black Eyes,” was written by Marvin Dunn, an emeritus professor at Florida International University, who is among those gathered. He quiets the group before telling the gripping story of the man beneath the tombstone. The man was Julius “July” Perry, a Black voting rights activist who was killed — arrested, then dragged from jail by a white mob and lynched — on Election Day in 1920 during the Ocoee Massacre, the culmination of a tragic chain of events set in motion, according to accounts, by a Black man attempting to vote.
The stop at the cemetery was part of the second “Teach the Truth” tour, a field trip to historic Black sites in Florida, organized by Dunn in response to the threat to teaching comprehensive Black history posed by the anti-woke hysteria of the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis.
“Teach the Truth” is full of visits to the graves of Black people killed by white racists, cases Dunn told me he focuses on “because those are the ones that are easiest to forget” — the “hard stories” that are, as he says, the ones most in need of preservation.
On this tour there are about two dozen students. One of them is Marcus Green, a 15-year-old Black boy, tall and thin, with searching, almond-shaped eyes, a crown of finger-length braids and a quiet, deliberative demeanor that occasionally surrenders a smile.
As we stand under a shade tree waiting for the tour bus, Marcus tells me what it feels like for him to be a student in Florida right now, that he is balancing a sense of empowerment and fear. I asked why he invoked fear, and he said: “Because you can’t help but feel it.”
His mother tells me that she signed him up for the tour because he was frustrated by the feeling that there was so much of his history that he didn’t know.
The next tour stop was in Live Oak, at the graveside of Willie James Howard, a teenager lynched because he wrote a love letter to a white girl. Her father kidnapped Howard from his home at gunpoint, took him to a bluff overlooking the Suwannee River and offered the boy an impossible choice: take a bullet from a barrel aimed at his head or jump — with his hands and feet bound — and take his chances in the water.
The boy chose the river. The river won.
As Dunn told the story of Howard — whom he has described as Florida’s Emmett Till — Marcus’s face rippled as he repeatedly clenched his jaw and furrowed his brow. Howard was then the same age as Marcus is now: 15. As he told me: “That could have been me.”
Dunn called the students forward to touch Howard’s gravestone, which they did, one at a time. Marcus held back, but eventually stepped forward, bent down and pressed his open palm to the stone. He held it there, then slowly released, later telling me that when he touched it, he “felt a sense of serenity.”
As the group made its way to the spot along the river where Howard leapt to his death, a local radio station replayed an interview between DeSantis and Sean Hannity in which DeSantis called the Advanced Placement course in African American studies that he has vocally opposed “garbage” and “neo-Marxist indoctrination.”
The message — like the message in several of DeSantis’s broadsides aimed at academic freedom and so-called wokeness — is a medley of buzz-wordy circumlocution.
Too much of the debate about DeSantis’s cynical censorship craze has centered the opinions of adults, the theories of politicians and the feelings of white children — feelings presumed to be hurt if they encounter, in class, some of our history’s bleakest episodes.
But what about the other children, the roughly 600,000 Black students in Florida’s public schools, like Marcus, searching for a history that includes them — a history of them — who now feel targeted and afraid? Do they not matter in this debate? What about their needs and their feelings?
My conversations with Marcus echo those I recently had with another 15-year-old student from Florida, Adrianna Gutierrez, who identifies as Afro-Latina and as a lesbian, and therefore feels the brunt of both DeSantis’s anti-Black studies and history push and his anti-L.G.B.T.Q. push, including his state’s Don’t Say Gay law.
Adrianna called the situation in Florida “surreal” and said it feels like things are in a “state of chaos,” all of which has pushed her toward activism.
She said the first protest she attended, late last year, was “scary” because although she knew some people didn’t like her for who she was, she had never come face-to-face with hate as intense and concentrated as it was among the counterprotesters who were there.
As she recalled it, many of the counterprotesters brought young children with them, carried signs with slogans about school being a “place to learn and not teach about transgenderism” and they yelled, “Protect our children.”
But who’s going to protect children like Marcus and Adrianna, children who want to know our full history; who want to find themselves and be themselves and deserve to feel safe in the pursuit? Hiding the complexities or harsher truths of the past from them is to rob them of tools they need to navigate and survive in a still-hostile world, one in which horrors aren’t confined to graves nor queer people confined to closets.
On the last stop of the “Teach the Truth” tour, Dunn drove the group down an ivory-colored dirt road in the Rosewood community to a wooded area he’s converting into a remembrance park for the victims of the Rosewood Massacre.
He told the children about a tense encounter in September, when he visited the site with another group, including his son, and the neighbor across the street charged at them in his truck while yelling the n-word and “almost killed my son.” The neighbor was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
As Dunn told the story, a placard next to the neighbor’s fence was visible. It read: “DeSantisland: Land of Liberty.”
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